How to ditch the day job and become a couture cake chef

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Do you spend your days stuck listlessly behind a desk, clock-watching and dreaming about an alternative existence? ... and do you love cakes?

Then it's time to listen up.

Four years ago, 34-year-old Carla Fox packed in her dull job in banking and set up her own couture cake business under the moniker Fondant Fox. Working from her flat in east London, she creates bespoke cakes to order and supplements her income with cookery courses at Cake4Fun in Putney.

She's faced all kinds of challenges in her four years in the cake business, from creating a six-tier Indian wedding cake to crafting intricate scrolls, royal icing lace work, antique metallics and handmade romantic sugar flowers.

Like any start-up, it hasn't always been easy: Carla still uses her flat's tiny kitchen as her base and admits to regularly losing equipment and frustrating her boyfriend by covering the place in gold fondant icing.

Despite this, she has never looked back (" I just wish I'd started it years ago," she says) and loves using her creative energy to do something different and fulfilling. Read on to find out how she went about setting up her own business and her top tips for others who want to do the same:

Carla Fox of Fondant Fox Cake Designs

Ditching the day job

I was always bored and frustrated in my banking job, but felt I didn't have the skills or experience to significantly change my career into something more interesting and creative.

Then, out of pure frustration one Friday afternoon in the office, I signed up to a day course in decorating mini wedding cakes at Cakes4Fun in Putney. I was hooked and since that day in 2010, I haven't looked back.

When I first quit my banking job I went backpacking around the world. My big break was working for a large cake decorating kitchen in Sydney and getting thrown in the deep end. It was scary but I learnt so much.

The week before I joined, the kitchen I worked in made all the cakes for the set of Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby, so I knew I was working at a great place. After working there, for the first time ever I knew this was the job for me and that I'd never set foot in an office again.

I'm fairly new to the world of cake and in under four years I've made a complete career U-turn. I just wish I'd started it years ago and not stayed in a job I couldn't stand for seven years!

A tier 'Naked' wedding cake with fresh strawberries, raspberries and redcurrants

Striking out solo

Confidence and skill were probably the biggest factors in starting my own business - everything else just falls into place after that.

I started off really small and initially just made cakes for friends and family in order to practise. By the end of it, my boyfriend was having nightmares about being force-fed cake.

From this I learnt just from trial and error the best suppliers to use. Above all quality of ingredients comes first.

I also learnt loads from the cake school I trained at - the same cake decorating school where I now teach at part time. Gaining on-the-job experience beforehand is so important. It may seem straight forward making cakes on a small scale, but turning it into a profitable business introduces a whole different set of skills and knowledge.

The question I get most asked as a tutor is Kitchen Aid or Kenwood? (in terms of best mixer to buy!). I can tell you that after using both of them extensively on a commercial scale, Kitchen Aid is best for baking and Kenwood is best for buttercream. And if you do a lot of royal icing, there's a Swedish brand called Assistent - it's amazing for making royal icing without a hint of air bubbles.

The sketches Carla uses to give her clients an idea of how their cake will look

Creating a unique selling point

Fondant Fox Cake Designs is a really personal service, and that's especially important given that we're based in London.

After I'm initially contacted about making a cake I meet with my clients for a consultation (many of my requests are for weddings) - this gives me the best idea of what I think they're looking for, as all my designs are bespoke and tailored to each individual client.

I then design the cake and send out cake samples (to help them decide flavours- the most important part!) and I provide sketches to give them a visual idea of what the cake will look like when finished.

I like to describe my style of cake design as "dishevelled glamour". Intricate scrolls, hand-painting, royal icing lace work, antique metallics, handmade romantic sugar flowers and edible flowers are a few of my current obsessions ...with nothing too perfect or uniform. I also use a traditional method of royal icing called "brushed embroidery". Using this technique I can replicate the lacework from a bridal gown onto a cake (as seen on the cake below).

A tier double height vintage lace cake in pale duck egg fondant with antique white-brushed embroidery royal icing and decorated with a large sugared open garden rose in cerise

How to deal with challenges

Last year I was asked to make a six-tier Indian wedding cake to feed 500 people. I did it all from my tiny little kitchen in East London (as I'm still home-based). The design was based on the bride's outfit and to get the gold effect really even it had to be air-brushed onto the fondant. By the end, my entire flat was covered in gold including our TV, which later stopped working. These little challenges keep things interesting though! I was so pleased with it in the end, all the stress was worth it.

Depending on the design, I may make the cake on the day of the actual event. If it's a Naked cake (which are a really popular choice at the moment) then it needs to be baked that morning in order to be super fresh, as it's not covered in fondant or butter-cream.

If it's a complex lace or royal icing design which requires a lot of time decorating then it needs to be baked up to two to three days before to give enough decorating time.

The most nerve-wracking part of the cake-making process is the delivery. I've been so nervous before that I've carried the cake in a taxi on my lap! It's the best feeling when it's all set up at the venue at looking fab. After that (it's normally a weekend) so I'll find my friends and meet for a large glass of wine to celebrate.

Tier Marie Antoinette textured buttercream finish wedding cake, adorned with handmade sugar roses, moulded ornate scrolls painted with edible gold, piping and beadwork

Top tip for going it alone

You may think there's a lot of competition out there but if you have an idea, passion and drive then go for it, as you may be able to do it better. It's also better than regretting not have given it a try. Just expect to wave goodbye to set hours and free evenings, as every minute of your day will be consumed with the business. This works well for me, but it's not for everybody.

Best bit:

I love that I can use all my creative energy making things that essentially make people happy. Everyday is different. I could have a pug cake pop order one day, or a bespoke vintage lace wedding cake the next. I'm also really enjoying working on a new collaboration with The Meringue Girls where we have used their meringues and my cakes to produce a wedding cake collection. It's super exciting.

Worst bit:

The most frustrating part is probably lack of space. I'm still home-based and a new business, so I'm still working from a small kitchen. I'm constantly losing equipment and not being able to find anything, which is really annoying when I'm in the final stages of finishing a cake!

Introducing the Fondant Fox and Meringue Girls collaboration: this floral tiered meringue wedding cake is covered in textured Italian meringue buttercream and decorated in meringue kisses and wild edible flowers. It sits on a base of three layers of full size meringues for extra height

And finally...

After watching this year's Masterchef final I've become obsessed with the ex elBulli pastry chef who has set up a cake company in Barcelona and he's an absolute genius - exploding cakes, gravity-defying cakes and a real element of surprise. So cool. He once made a giant 6ft 3D cake of a French Bulldog. Actually yes that's my dream cake - I love dogs!

My idol is Michael-Roux snr though. French patisserie blows my mind.

See more about Carla's Fondant Fox Cake Design business here.

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